As the name would suggest, kennel cough is a nasty cough that any dog can catch, but it’s most prominent in areas densely populated with canines, such as kennels.
It’s highly contagious, and though the hacking, hoarse cough can sound pretty severe (and annoying for both you and your pup), kennel cough is rarely a serious condition. Keep reading to find out more about what kennel cough is, where your dog could have picked it up from, treatment methods and how to prevent your dog from catching the illness.
Kennel cough, more formally known as canine infectious respiratory disease, is essentially just the dog equivalent of the human common cold. It’s a respiratory infection transmitted through inhaling airborne droplets or having direct contact with the infection, causing the most obvious symptom of a dry, persistent and forceful cough.
The cause of kennel cough can stem from various agents, in the exact same way that human colds can be triggered by a whole load of different bacteria and viruses. Several types of bothersome bacteria can cause kennel cough, but the most frequent perpetrator is Bordetella. If your dog is infected with these bacteria, it’s highly likely that they’ll also be infected with a virus at the same time, such as canine adenovirus and canine distemper virus. Each one of these viruses make a dog more vulnerable to picking up the Bordetella bacteria.
So, your dog will catch kennel cough when they encounter infectious bacteria and virus particles, which most likely happens by picking up the airborne droplets from a sneeze or cough of another infected dog. Having direct nose-to-nose contact and even just sharing toys and food bowls with an infected dog can also cause the rapid spread of kennel cough. If you’ve got a sociable dog who wants to have a chat with every dog they see, they’re at more risk of catching kennel cough just because they’re having more contact.
Usually, when a dog inhales any kind of nasty particles into their respiratory tract, the infectious particles will be captured by a mucus wall that lines the tract in order to protect it from becoming infected and irritated. However, this wall of protection can become weakened due to a number of factors, including:
Exposure to areas that are densely pooch populated and/or poorly ventilated, like kennels
Exposure to areas filled with dust and/or smoke
Stress weakens the immune system as a whole
If the protective defence mechanism in your dog’s respiratory tract is weakened by any kind of environmental influence, it causes the larynx (voice box) and trachea (windpipe) to become inflamed. As a result, your dog will experience kennel cough.
If you know that your dog is infected with kennel cough, try and limit their contact with other dogs as it’s extremely contagious.
We’ve already covered the main symptom of kennel cough, which is of course, a nasty cough. Basically, it sounds like they’ve got something stuck in their throat that they’re trying to push out. It’ll also be pretty relentless, so prepare yourself for some long days of listening to your dog cough. You might get kennel cough confused with the sound of a reverse sneeze, but they do sound quite different. Kennel cough sounds more like your dog is trying to get something out of their throat, whereas the sound of reverse sneezing can appear like your dog is trying to inhale a sneeze. Reverse sneezing is perfectly normal, and plenty of dogs will experience an episode of reverse sneezing.
Luckily, most dogs with this canine cold just experience the nasty cough and nothing else. However, some pups can experience a few more symptoms, but again, it’s usually nothing worse than how us humans would suffer from a cold.
Additional symptoms can include:
Symptoms don’t really get much worse than this, all in all your dog might just feel slightly under the weather for a few days. Typically, dogs encounter an incubation period (the time it takes from the point of infection until symptoms start to present themselves) of around 2-14 days. In some cases, dogs can harbour the kennel cough infection for several months without even displaying any symptoms.
In all honesty, kennel cough doesn’t need a proper diagnosis. It’s a good idea to ring your vet if your canine is coughing, and they’ll probably be able to diagnose kennel cough through a description of your dog’s symptoms and if your dog has been in a big crowd of hounds within the 2–14-day incubation period.
If you want to take your dog into the vets, make sure to phone them prior to your visit anyway to warn them, you don’t want your dog to be coughing all over the waiting room spreading their germs to other dogs. If your dog is acting totally normally and you notice nothing out of character, they’re sprightly, playful and eating well, a proper vet visit probably won’t be necessary. Puppies, senior dogs and those with a weakened immune system might need more careful monitoring and check-ups from the vet, as some rare cases kennel cough can advance into pneumonia.
Although kennel cough is an annoyance, it’s thankfully not really a worry. Most cases will clear up all on their own without the need for veterinary intervention. Our four-legged friends usually have a sturdy, resilient immune system set up to fight off the cough.
As we know, kennel cough can be caused by multiple viruses and bacteria, and some strains of the illnesses can have more severe symptoms. Cough medicines and antibiotics that predominantly attack the Bordetella bacteria can be provided for the more serious cases to alleviate the symptoms and accelerate the recovery time. Puppies, elderly dogs and dogs with a compromised immune system will be the ones to suffer the worst with kennel cough, so they may be the ones to require some extra help along the way.
You’ll know how irritating it is to have a sore throat, and it’s a pretty similar feeling for our dogs. Try and switch to using a harness on walks rather than a collar to prevent any strain on their neck. This isn’t as much of a problem if your dog is a pro at loose lead walking, but if they’re prone to yanking your arm out of its socket, a harness might be a good option for the time being. Also, keep your dog’s living areas airy and well-humidified to ease that scratchy throat.
Your dog’s recovery should only take about 3 weeks, although senior dogs, puppies and dogs with a compromised immune system may see a 6-week recovery period. If kennel cough doesn’t clear up, make sure to contact your vet for a check-up, as persistent kennel cough can lead to pneumonia, especially for those dogs already suffering from another medical condition.
The illness will need medical attention if you start noticing more severe symptoms such as quick, excessive breathing or difficulty breathing, a lack of appetite and lethargy. Get in touch with the vet immediately if you notice anything like this.
Technically, you’ve got a pretty good shot at preventing your dog from catching kennel cough by limiting your dog’s exposure to other dogs. However, no pet parent will want to restrict their dog from playing and interacting with their pooch pals, so this is not really a viable option. Kennel cough is prevalent in areas crowded with canines, such as kennels, so again, avoiding kennels is a good way to start. Although, if you want to go away without your four-legged friend, you might need to have kennels as an option for care.
The best way to prevent kennel cough is by getting your dog vaccinated against the illness. The vaccine comes in a few different forms, but the most common one is an intranasal vaccine. This type of vaccine provides your pup with localised immunity by squirting it up right up your dog’s nose. As a result, the vaccine is given exactly where it’s needed. Normally, a booster vaccine will be given annually to keep your dog’s immunity topped up.
The kennel cough vaccine isn’t part of your dog’s core vaccination set, but it’s always good for your dog to be protected. Also, if you want to put your dog in kennels and boarding while you go away, proof of the kennel cough vaccine will most likely be mandatory.
When your pup gets their first set of vaccinations when they’re really young, they’ll already be gaining some kind of immunity against kennel cough. Vaccines against parainfluenza, distemper, adenovirus and more are all included in your pup’s vaccination set, and these are just some of the infections that can trigger kennel cough.
However, as we know, the Bordetella bacteria is the most likely culprit causing the illness, and the vaccine against this bacterium is given through the separate intranasal vaccine mentioned earlier. Vaccinating against the Bordetella bacteria won’t guarantee complete protection against kennel cough due to all the different varieties of the illness, but it should do a pretty good job since Bordetella is the most common strain. Even if the vaccine doesn’t fully prevent kennel cough, it should at least minimise the symptoms your dog experiences. It’s also important to note that the vaccine will do nothing to help an active infection.
Realistically, kennel cough isn’t too big of a worry for most dogs, so it’s up to you whether you think getting them vaccinated is worth it. If you want your dog to stay in kennels at any point in their life, it’s handy to have their kennel cough vaccination up to date.
Think of kennel cough just like the human cold, we get them multiple times in a year and are usually perfectly fine after a week or two. Just like the common cold, kennel cough comes in various strains, so your dog may become reinfected with a different strain.
If they’ve experienced the most common Bordetella strain, your dog will probably have immunity against those specific bacteria for around 6-12 months.
Kennel cough is a common and minor canine illness, so don’t worry too much if your dog starts to cough. Speak to the vet and keep an eye on the cough and it should resolve all on its own, just have a bit of sympathy for your poor pup’s constant coughing.
Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS
Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.